Sages Over 70: Walter Kirimitsu
He’s now master of Kamehameha Schools after serving as an attorney, appellate judge, UH’s general counsel and president of Saint Louis School.
Walter Kirimitsu is as ambitious and excited about his work at age 81 as when he was a young man climbing the career ladder. After graduating from Saint Louis School, UH Mānoa and the University of Michigan’s law school, the down-to-earth local boy built a long and illustrious legal career in Hawai‘i and he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
This year, he was appointed master of Kamehameha Schools, a position created in 2000 to oversee the trust and trustees, under the direction of a probate judge. He analyzes the trustees’ annual reports, puts together trustee selection committees and evaluates all of the estate’s processes.
He says he doesn’t know if and when he will retire, “but right now I figure as long as I can serve as master, I’ll continue. After that, who knows, I might join the professional golf association circuit.”
Kirimitsu grew up in the Kalihi- Pālama area, and he likes that his job brings him back to his hometown. His parents, second-generation descendants of Japanese immigrants, had a half-acre vegetable garden at the foot of the Kapālama campus. He remembers helping on the farm every day as a child.
“I had no idea what Kamehameha Schools Kapālama campus was at the time I was working on the farm, but it just coincidentally happened that I was raised in Kapālama and pretty much spent my childhood there.”
Represented Accident Victims
In his early years, Kirimitsu worked as a civil litigation attorney in Honolulu for more than 20 years. His main focus was personal injury cases, representing people who were injured in all types of accidents.
“There were a number of different cases where we represented people who were severely disabled,” he says. One significant case involved a young girl who was sitting in the passenger seat of a car when the driver hit an embankment. The girl fractured her neck and was paralyzed. “We were able to get a sizable settlement over the course of the rest of her life,” he says.
He was the president of the Hawaii State Bar Association in 1990.
He was appointed by Gov. Ben Cayetano as an associate judge for the state Intermediate Court of Appeals and served there for five years. While an appellate judge, Kirimitsu was assigned civil and criminal cases by the Hawai‘i Supreme Court.
Afterward, he went to work for his alma maters, serving as the first general counsel and VP for legal affairs at UH, and then as the first non clergy president of Saint Louis School. He says that being the president of Saint Louis for nine years was more stressful than any of his previous jobs, including being a judge, which he calls relaxing.
“He’s a very intelligent and talented and well-liked person,” says Alvin Katahara, a friend and former Saint Louis School employee. He first met Kirimitsu about 10 years ago when Kirimitsu hired Katahara to be the chief marketing officer at Saint Louis School when he was president.
Katahara confesses that Kirimitsu, though known for his distinguished career, is also a “more than accomplished karaoke singer.” He remembers the one time Kirimitsu choked under pressure while attempting to sing in public.
“He was asked to sing the national anthem at a UH baseball game in front of a crowd, and now Walter has a very good voice. He went up there in the middle of the field, was introduced, was given the mic and he forgot the words,” he laughs.
Always Welcoming and Warm
Katahara calls the retired judge both a friend and a mentor. He says he admires and tries to emulate Kirimitsu’s upbeat attitude – always welcoming and warm. He also picked up on the way that Kirimitsu asks for advice.
“He would trust people’s instincts,” says Katahara. “He would seek out my instinct and he would put a lot of trust in my instinctual reaction and whatever answer that was.” Katahara says Kirimitsu is also the best storyteller he knows, able to tell a story about anything and relate it to a personal experience.
After Kirimitsu left Saint Louis in 2015, he told his wife he was retired. “She said, ‘What is that? You never retired,’ ” Kirimitsu says. “Well, I retired from Saint Louis.”
He and his wife, May, have been married nearly 60 years and have three children.
He continued working as a member of the state Judicial Selection Commission, helping to pick new judges in Hawai‘i, until 2017. He also has a solo mediation and arbitration business that operates on an on-call basis. His schedule still allows him to play golf once a week, spend time with his wife and perform his master role at Kamehameha Schools.
“He’s a Saint Louis alumnus and very proud alumnus, so I was surprised he took on that (Kamehameha) job but I do know that there’s probably a good mission that he sees,” says Katahara.
“No matter whether he helps someone from Saint Louis or Kamehameha Schools, these are going to be leaders of our community and I know he will do well to help (them).”